What exactly is social entrepreneurship, and why is it so influential in the fashion and apparel world? At its core, social entrepreneurship is simply using a company to advocate for social, cultural, and/or environmental issues. The fashion industry has been plagued with issues centered around sustainability and ethical treatment of its workers. Burberry, the British high fashion house, made headlines in 2018 when it was revealed that the company had a practice of burning and destroying excess and unsold stock in an effort to keep the brand’s reputation of exclusivity and luxury. In 2013, a factory building in Bangladesh known as Rana Plaza collapsed, killing over 1000 people in one of the worst industrial accidents on record. Both of these issues highlight a serious issue in the fashion industry – many brands have historically been indifferent to the environmental impact of their products and the workplace conditions of those who manufacture them. Social entrepreneurship has become popular within the apparel industry, as consumers recognize that this kind of intervention is necessary to create meaningful change. Social entrepreneurs are also innovating as they seek original ways to deal with social and environmental issues while still producing a product that appeals to the marketplace.
Sudara, founded by Shannon Keith, works with women in India who are at risk of becoming a sex trafficking victim, or who have escaped from trafficking. Because of a lack of income makes women more vulnerable to trafficking, Sudara employs at risk Indian women to sew their loungewear and offers the opportunity for them to explore other roles in different fields such as IT work, cosmetology, and tailoring. Workers can develop the foundational skills they need to find different types of jobs outside the company. Sudara also works with partners who help to train women throughout the year, and this program currently results in an 89% job placement rate for participants. Keith’s brand just is one of many brands using social entrepreneurship to enact real change in the world.
There are numerous other social entrepreneurs fighting to change, and ultimately better, the apparel industry from within. Akshay Sethi, founder of Ambercycle, uses her brand to upcycle polyester (a major contributor to microplastic pollution) into a new type of fabric. Collective impact and action are essential when it comes to enacting lasting change, and it’s part of the reason that Ambercycle, and others like it, have come together to connect with and learn from each other.
In all, it is clear that social entrepreneurship has come a long way in trying to transform the apparel industry from within. As more and more brands begin to take on various causes, it’s vital that they support and lift each other up in an international and interconnected network. Their success will inspire others to join in and can pave the way in supporting businesses that use their capital and influence to transform the industry and influence society.